"Land use is the best transit resource you can buy. We must continue to align land use and transit planning."
That was a key message that Gregg Lintern delivered to attendees during the recent Canadian Urban Institute / Novae Res Urbis annual panel discussion with the City of Toronto's Chief Planner. Lintern and other expert guests were gathered to speak about how to address the challenges around transit and mobility in Toronto's suburbs as part of the 21st edition of the event.
Transportation can be a challenge in areas within Toronto's limits that are far from the core, particularly for low-income families. Travelling to work, school or recreation is difficult and time-consuming. Lintern and the panel considered ways to rethink how to approach transportation planning in the region to make suburbs more economically, socially and environmentally sustainable, while offering a high quality of life and design.
Laurie Payne, vice-president of Development and Special Projects for DiamondCorp moderated the event. She set the stage by asking rhetorically, "How can we engage communities going forward to positively affect access, livability and mobility in Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough? How do we make good use of the infrastructure we have now? And how do we promote mobility in places designed for cars, not people?"
She pointed out that many of the people living in these areas are isolated—often having to commute two hours or more by public transit to and from work. Seniors are especially isolated, relying on infrequent local transit to get to where they are going, or crossing dangerous streets with multiple lanes of traffic that are unfriendly to pedestrians just to reach the bus stop. Moreover, access to frequent transit is not available to suburban areas that also have some of the lowest-incomes in the city. Lower incomes mean many residents do not own a vehicle.
She then introduced Lintern to address the audience. He told the crowd that, while Toronto has a vibrant and dense urban core, it is primarily a suburban city. He said he was very familiar with Toronto's suburbs—he grew up in the Kipling Heights neighbourhood of north Etobicoke.
Much of the suburbs were designed during what Lintern called "The Age of Convenience"—the 1950s and 1960s—and with the idea that residents would mostly get around by car where they wanted to go. In this age, he explained, planners did not conceive that residence and employment could be in the same neighbourhood—work was always some place where you had to travel to.
"What was convenient in the 1950s in now inconvenient in the 2020s", he said. Lintern noted that many suburbanites face an average commute of 85 minutes daily. However, that may be changing, he said. Sixty percent of the projected growth for Toronto is in the suburbs. If that growth occurs with good land-use planning, Lintern said, that may mean greater mobility for the suburbs. Greater mobility, he explained, results in greater housing choices, which, in turn, produces greater equity.
Lintern echoed Payne's introductory question: The challenge for the City is how to retrofit the suburbs to improve mobility. The answer, he suggests, is to align land use and transit planning, so that transit infrastructure is in place before building takes place. Lintern noted that a large number of major transit projects are currently in design or under construction in Toronto, but also pointed out that, despite this, 70 per cent of the transit trips in the city are by bus or streetcar. He said that the city must plan transportation options to make sure that people can use all modes of transportation—from walking and cycling to local surface transit—so that it can also make sure that those major transportation projects succeed.
An even more important challenge, Lintern concluded, is this: How do you bring people along for the ride? "We have to connect people with the solutions to the mobility issue, by consulting frequently, listening carefully and redesigning new development and new transportation projects by adopting their input."
Payne then introduced the members of the panel, each of whom made brief presentations. First up: Lintern's colleague, Barbara Gray, the City's General Manager of Transportation Services. She talked about work on the City's Vision Zero plan to reduce pedestrian and cyclist fatalities on streets. She reminded attendees that we must talk about building networks for connected trips within communities when planning transit. A connected cycling network, for trips to downtown and in the suburbs create better and safer mobility options for suburbanites.
Ajeev Bhatia the Manager of Policy / Community Connections for the Centre for Connected Communities started his talk by stating that communities are ecosystems and transit planning processes must build off the community wisdom that's already available to planners. Bhatia currently works on community engagement with local grassroots leaders. For example, Bhatia is working on a project to engage the community as part of planning for the future Eglinton East light rail transit line. As a result of this work, he's encouraging planners to listen to local residents so they can better understand what's happening in communities and what's useful to the residents of those communities.
Eric Miller, Director of the University of Toronto's Transportation Research Institute spoke next. He focussed on Scarborough as typical of Toronto's suburbs. He explained that even though politicians promote grand schemes to move Scarborough residents to and from downtown Toronto, the reality is that the city's core is not where most of them want to travel. Miller displayed statistics that revealed that just 11 percent of them travel daily to and from downtown, ten percent commute to neighbouring York Region, and three to Durham. Eight percent travel to and from the rest of the city, and just two percent to the rest of the Greater Toronto area. The key take-away from these statistics: Nearly 70 percent of Scarborough residents commute only within Scarborough.
Of that 70 percent, 43 percent travel between north and south Scarborough. They don't travel downtown or to North York. They don't even travel for work to and from Scarborough Centre, which is where Toronto's next subway will go.
Miller expressed concern about politicians emphasizing major transit projects over developing the nuts-and-bolts of a transportation network. "Building subways is not helpful", he said, unless you also build basic transit services to carry people to and from that subway. He presented a slide with a layered triangle to illustrate how transit planners must build a successful network, step by step. On the base, buses (and streetcars) serve local communities, bringing them to high-order transit lines. Next, you can build bus-rapid or light-rail transit lines to link with the buses and connect passengers within a district. Subways are the next level of transit, linking BRTs and LRTs and passengers across the city. Finally, frequent commuter rail connects the subways and the entire region.
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After the panellists' presentations, Payne asked the panel to respond to a series of questions.
"If you had to choose one move to improve mobility in areas not well served by high-level transit, what would it be?"
Lintern: I would make sure to link land-use planning with transit planning. The City's Avenues project is a good illustration, where we're encouraging higher densities along streets with transit services. Currently, many of these streets only have low-rise retail or residential.
Bhatia: Improve walkability. For example, the Mornelle area of Scarborough near U of T has a high number of seniors without cars who have to walk uphill to reach a distant grocery store. Adding frequent rest spots with benches and trees to local streets would help make those walks less onerous.
Gray: Focus on the first and last mile – develop strategies to improve walking, cycling and other ways that passengers travel to and from transit stops and stations. And, use pilot projects to test the plans and tweak them after the pilot period when necessary.
Miller: Continue doing what we're doing, but improve frequency and reliability so that people can trust transit providers to be available to take them where they want to go.
"What would be your strategy to engage communities in developing tactics to improve mobility?"
Bhatia: Listen to the grassroots because officials will always learn things they didn't know before. And, encourage "cross-silo" communications so that different sections of the government talk to each other!
Lintern: Professional planners and other experts need the humility to understand that they don't have all the answers. The need to learn from communities.
Miller: Continue to build "last-mile" solutions to transportation issues. Running forty-foot buses on low-density residential streets is seldom successful. Consider "microtransit" – for example, smaller buses or demand-responsive services.
Gray: Support walking and cycling throughout the city to improve access for everyone, especially those without cars.
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The event attracted a full house of planners, municipal officials and students at the University of Toronto's Innis College. Among the audience were former Toronto chief planners, including Paul Bedford and Robert Millward, the City of Mississauga's Commissioner of Planning and Building, Andrew Whittemore, and that city's Commissioner of Transportation and Works, Geoff Wright.
What do you think of the issues that the Chief Planner and the panel discussed? Leave your comments in the form below this page.
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